This week’s reading

Two books have been consuming my spare time recently. “Indonesia Etc” by Elizabeth Pisani – I don’t ever read what might be described as a travel book usually, but this had received good reviews and seemed appropriate when I came across it at the Salts Mill bookshop. Mostly she writes about the further reaches of Indonesia, a massive country with thousands of islands spread out (along the line of a geological fault) and the fourth largest population in the world. She writes about generous hospitality, and the survival of long-held traditions in the face of the incursions of modern life and trading and technology, in a country massively rich in natural resources and fertile. The transition from living just to feed yourself and your village to living as a wage-slave in the capitalist economy. And then the contrast of these distant corners of Indonesia with the central island of Java, the capital Jakarta, the overcrowding and shanty towns and thousands upon thousands of small motorbikes constantly on the move. Everyone looks like a gangster. And the concept of gangster, of a “free man” (no particular mention of a free woman) is also significant in the film “The Act Of Killing”, where veterans of 1960s anti-communist death squads re-enact their executions for a contemporary documentary film crew, with pride and excitement, rather than self-questioning. To be a gangster, a “free man”, romantically on the edge of society – but in fact doing the dirty work of the military state, and thus free from impunity. Quite a disturbing film, and not one that would make you more enthusiastic to visit Indonesia!

The second book, David Harvey”s “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” bears some relation, at least in its emphasis on the importance and tolerance of crime, illegality, exploitation and the unofficial economy in the growth of capital and capitalism. Having struggled dutifully through Marx’s “Das Kapital” thirty years ago, through the thickets of of obscure idealist philosophising to describe the inherent nature of the commodity fetish, this book is a much more readable, clear, comprehensible analysis of capital/capitalism and its irresistible growth and seemingly unstoppable destructive proliferation. Highly recommended! I’m only halfway through, but very much looking forward to discovering what his practical suggestions are for countering and replacing this way of living we are all apparently stuck with.

It’s the kind of book I fondly imagine Jeremy Corbyn might have on his bookcase (and have read). Wishful thinking perhaps.

But without wishful thinking, how will we ever imagine, let alone achieve, an alternative future?


Fail to plan = plan to fail?

I’m sure that’s a quote from someone, perhaps an old politician, perhaps a wise old football manager – if you fail to plan, you might as well plan to fail. It goes along with – the harder I work/practise, the luckier I get – which was Gary Player, the golfer, I think. For now, the pithiest wisdom I have gleaned from nearly six weeks in Singapore is the importance of planning, by governments, from above, perhaps for the benefit of the wider people. And, it seems to me, that Britain is the proof of the reverse, ie thirty or more years of denying the importance of government planning, of shrinking the state, of worshipping the so-called free market, of trusting that somehow all will be for the best if we bow down to the demands of private profit in all areas, above any other consideration. In the name of austerity, the current Conservative government has joyously forged ahead with outsourcing more and more responsibilities to private companies – education, prisons, healthcare, social care, probation, the post office, on and on the list goes – so that all of these services are managed by companies whose first duty is not to provide a decent service, but to provide profits to their shareholders. We need to have the confidence, the vision, the self-belief, even the self-esteem, to say that we, as a country, as a people, are worth ensuring that these services are provided to each and every one of us fairly, generously, and that the only organisation that can ensure that this happens is the state – not profit-seeking private companies. Will anyone stand up in this election and argue for this?

Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s first Prime Minister, for thirty years, then remained in government for another twenty years – his son is now Prime Minister (coincidence?) – in fifty years of independence, opposition parties have won a total of about twelve seats in parliament. He was able to plan unashamedly, fifteen-year plans, in a small geographical area, but with undeniable results. Debates after his death: was he in any sense a democrat? A benevolent dictator? Or not so benevolent? A founding father of a nation? Clearly the wealth of Singapore is in international financial trading (above and below board) – not so different to the City of London then – symbolised now by the casino-funded Marina Bay Sands complex, and thus at the heart of rapacious, conspicuous capitalism, surrounded day-to-day by all-pervasive vacuous consumerism, shopping centres full of unaffordable luxury goods.

So now I’m arguing against myself – Singapore is a city-state distinguished by aggressive government planning to provide a centre for¬†international capitalism – I’m looking for aggressive government planning in a large but fragmented islands-state to promote social justice/fairness/equality and education/culture for their own sake – a centre for international socialism, if you like. That’s looking a bit optimistic, even in Scotland. But I think there’s something to argue for there, still, even now, in 2015. But who might argue for it?